Active vs. Passive: What voice should I use?

November 10, 2016

Dr. Kathryn Sobek, Filipodia Editor

 

 

Authors can choose one of two voices to write in—active or passive.

 

 

The active voice emphasizes who or what is performing the action. This voice is direct and concise. A sentence written in active voice is structured as performer-verb-receiver.

 

For example: We (performer) analyzed (verb) the results (receiver).

 

More active examples:

Sobek et al. investigated the role of apoptosis in prostate cancer.

The nurse interviewed the patients.

 

The passive voice emphasizes who or what is receiving the action. This voice is indirect and may lead to confusion as to who the performer is. A sentence written in passive voice is structured as receiver-verb-performer. In this voice, a form of the verb ‘to be’ is used followed by a past participle, and the performer is preceded with the word ‘by.’

 

For example: The results (receiver) were (‘to be’ verb form) analyzed (past participle) by us (‘by’ phrase and performer).

 

More passive examples:

The role of apoptosis in prostate cancer was investigated by Sobek et al.

The patients were interviewed.

In this last example, the ‘by’ phrase and performer were eliminated. This can lead to confusion for the reader because it is unclear who interviewed the patients.

 

The American Medical Academy’s AMA Manual of Style recommends the active voice in biomedical writing, except when the actor [performer] is unknown or the interest focuses on what is acted on [1]. Some journals specifically encourage the active voice as well.

 

So remember, for clear and direct expression of ideas, choose the active voice!

 

  1. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

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